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Jason Kraling sank his fingers deep into the spongy soil on Mount Laguna Saturday and pulled out a fistful of dead leaves, brittle pine needles, shards of wood and rich brown soil.

“Look at how moist this is,” said Kraling, a fire battalion chief with the U.S. Forest Service. “We’ve gotten a reprieve from how dry things were last summer. It’s a good time for prescribed burns.”

Years of sporadic drought had left San Diego County so parched that firefighters thought the region would explode with wildfires as soon as the Santa Ana winds returned in the fall.

Kraling’s Forest Service colleague, Talbot Hayes, told the Union-Tribune in August: “We are primed to burn. Things could get bad.”

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The dry Santa Anas did arrive on cue. But a big storm hit the county in mid-October. And it was followed by a lengthy series of storms in December that pushed seasonal rainfall to 8.55 inches on Mount Laguna and nearly twice that amount on Palomar Mountain.

Mount Laguna — which is part of the Descanso district of the Cleveland National Forest — also got snow, plus rain that formed into ice.

The snow and ice added weight to branches of the pine, oak and cedar trees that give the mountain much of its beauty. Some of the branches snapped and fell to the forest floor, where they will die, becoming a potential fire danger.

Firefighters inspect an area that had been burned in a prescribed burn

Firefighters Diego Calderon, right, and Vince Torcellini with the U.S. Forest Service inspect an area Saturday where the day before their crew had performed several prescribed pile burns on Mount Laguna.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The county’s weather continues to be cool; San Diego hasn’t reached 70 degrees since Nov. 29. That chill, and the sort of mixed clouds that hung over the county Saturday, slows evaporation.

And rain could reach the mountain on Monday and Tuesday.

Suddenly, and unexpectedly, the wildfire danger has fallen. It was listed as “low” on Saturday on Mount Laguna.

The Forest Service is making the most of this opportunity to gather dead and dying trees and vegetation and place them into piles that are reduced to ashes during carefully controlled prescribed burns.

Firefighters also carry out so-called broadcast burns — prescribed burns that occur over a more wide open area, under strict controls.

The Forest Service has cleared and cleaned about 200 acres since last month in the Descanso district. Kraling said the agency hopes to do the same to an additional 800 to 900 acres by the end of April, when the region typically turns very dry.

The fickleness of nature and limits of science make it impossible to know whether they’ll meet that goal.

The National Weather Service has a good record of estimating how much rain will fall when a storm draws close to land. But science hasn’t reached the point where forecasters can reliably tell how much rain will fall in specific areas weeks in advance.

Even short-term forecasts can be difficult. The weather service told people in San Diego County to brace for a big storm shortly before New Year’s Eve. A major system did drench much of Southern California. But it mostly stayed offshore when it got to San Diego, denying the county substantive rain and snow.

“We’ve had one really wet month — December,” said Brandt Maxwell, a weather service forecaster. “But we need more.”

“The difference between a dry year and a year that’s average or wet could come down to just two to three big storms,” he added. “We don’t know if that’s what we’re going to get.”

San Diego has recorded 3.59 inches of precipitation since the latest rainy season began on Oct. 1. That’s a smidge above average. It’s possible that the city, and county, could receive very little rain for the rest of the season, which would put the region in a perilous situation by mid-summer.

The picture is similar statewide.

A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite several prescribed pile burns on Mount Laguna

Vince Torcellini, a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service, uses a drip torch to ignite several prescribed pile burns on Mount Laguna on Saturday.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday that California has received an estimated 33.9 trillion gallons of rain water since Oct. 1. That’s put a dent in the state’s drought but hasn’t come close to ending it, largely because some of the hottest and driest years on record in California have occurred in the past 20 years. The state hasn’t recouped what it received over the years.

The Forest Service made the most of Saturday’s favorable weather on Mount Laguna when it did a prescribed burn off Sunrise Highway, not far from the little clutch of stores and lodging sites near the summit.

A firefighting crew burned large piles of vegetation that had been carefully spaced apart, with many of the mounds situated near snow and ice to further reduce the risk that the blaze would spread farther than wanted.

Some of the burn area contained “widow-makers,” the name for large branches that are ripped off a tree by strong winds and deposited in another tree. It’s not unusual for the wind to gust above 50 mph on the mountain. The widow-makers represent a hazard to hikers and campers and are often brought down by firefighters when possible.

In a time-tested practice, the crew used drip torches to set the piles on fire. Then they closely monitored what happened. On-site weather information is taken every 30 minutes and compared with weather service data for the entire region.

Under some conditions, the Forest Service will keep a firefighter on site all night to keep an eye on things. At other times, it will patrol the area periodically overnight.

“There’s a common misperception with a lot of folks that we just come out and light things on fire,” said Kraling, who has been with the Forest Service for 22 years.

A firefighter inspects the site of a day-old prescribed burn

Firefighter Jeff Mendoza with the U.S. Forest Service on Saturday inspects the site of a prescribed burn that had been lit the day before on Mount Laguna.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“There’s a lot of planning, a lot of anticipating, a lot of science behind this — where to light the pile, how to light the pile. Do you light the windward side or the leeward side?

“You want to avoid doing damage to the existing landscape.”

Saturday’s crew included firefighter Diego Calderon,who has been with the agency nearly four years.

“We’re utilizing fire to fight fire,” said Calderon, wrapped in protective clothing. “You get rid of the dry fuels, beautify the forest and create something that people can safely enjoy.”

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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